‘Small, sweet and bouncy’

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There is nothing like calling a hard-working steeplechase trainer after a Saturday winner.

“Off a good weekend, yeah, everything’s good,” Fenneka Bentley said, still at her Fair Hill barn at 5:00 Tuesday evening, three days after Fantastic Song won the featured allowance at Charleston April 8. “It starts the season off nicely. Last year, I ended with a win. This year, I started with a win.”

Sean McDermott settled Gill Johnston’s 8-year-old in last in the compact six-horse field before swinging wide and into contention as the field went down the backside the final time. Jumping the widest of three at the second-to-last, the son of Lemon Drop Kid continued to kick around the turn, met the last perfectly and held off Swansea Mile in a professional effort – another professional effort – as he improved his hurdle career to 3-for-6 over four seasons.

“He’s the coolest horse I think I’ve ever been around,” Bentley said. “He’s a really, really good horse, an honest good horse. Everybody loves riding him, he’s small and sweet and bouncy. He just enjoys what he’s doing. He was doing really well, he’s obviously coming off injuries so that’s always a worry, but he’s a tough nut and he will tell you when things aren’t feeling right.”

A debut winner at the Carolina Cup in 2013, the bay gelding lost his rider in his next start, won a tough second-level allowance on the flat at Delaware Park before finishing fourth in an allowance hurdle at Parx that summer. He missed the rest of the 2013 season and all of 2014 before resurfacing with a fourth at Middleburg, a win at High Hope, a seventh on the flat at Monmouth Park and a solid third over hurdles at Saratoga in 2015. Then he missed all of 2016, recuperating at Johnston’s Tennessee farm.

Fantastic Song and Grade 1 winner Mr. Hot Stuff (to Jack Fisher) returned from Johnston’s farm in December, joining three other hurdle horses in Bentley’s 12-horse string.

“They were field buddies. Something must have worn off, either way. I can’t say enough about Gill, she’s great, she’s not afraid to put them in a field and give them the time they need,” Bentley said. “It’s great that he can come around…every other year. We call him Little Man. He’s got his own personality, he’s just a cool horse.”

Fantastic Song, with retired jockey Robbie Walsh aboard, prepped for his Charleston win with a flat score at Piedmont Point-to-Point March 25.

• Sometimes, you have to scramble.

An hour before the second race, Kate Dalton ricocheted between two maidens back at the barn when her husband, Bernie, called from the jocks’ room with a problem.

“I was like a headless chicken, trying to get the two horses ready,” Kate said. “Bernie says, ‘Our jockey isn’t going to do the weight. Keith’s standing here, do you want him?’ I said, ‘All right, do it.’ It all worked out.”

Like a clock.

Apprentice Keith Dalton (no relation) deputized for Mark Watts, who was unable to make 142 pounds assigned to 4-year-old Zio Elio, while jockey/husband/agent Bernie was booked on Buck Benny.

With Dalton’s 10-pound apprentice allowance, Zio Elio put the weight advantage to good use, establishing an early stalking spot, outside Kremlin for most of the journey. Zio Elio pounced when Kremlin erred at the last fence on the backstretch the final time but it was anything from a respite as Moscato ranged up on the outside on the run to the last hurdle. Moscato, with three placings over hurdles in Britain, failed to reel in a game Zio Elio. Kremlin held on for third, beaten 7 lengths.

“I was thinking he was schooling around. He’s a big baby, he’ll be in the bridle and all of a sudden, he’ll spit the bit and you’re like, ‘Hello? Hello?’ Five strides later, he’ll be back on the bridle,” Kate Dalton said. “Keith had never been on the horse, I said, ‘he’s a big baby, just school him around, give him a good experience.’ The weight was definitely in our favor but he was game, it didn’t hurt that the jockey was riding from the last fence home like it was the Kentucky Derby. The unexpected ones are always cool.”

In six starts on the flat, the $60,000 OBS March 2-year-olds in training purchase failed to land a blow, managing a fifth and three sixth-placed finishes from Belmont Park to Saratoga to Finger Lakes for trainers Rick Schosberg and Jonathan Buckley.

• Neil Morris produced the exacta in the conditioned claimer as Buckshot Racing’s Longing To Travel won for the second time in his jump career. The 6-year-old son of Langfuhr staved off entrymate Cognashene by a neck. Devil’s Wrangler finished third, 10 3/4 lengths back. The 2016 champion jockey, Kieran Norris, guided the winner who improved from a runner-up effort at Aiken to kick off the season.

Norris placed Longing To Travel just off the pace set by Devil’s Wrangler before taking over late to hold off Cognashene in a stretch-long tussle.

Bred by flat-racing stalwarts Sondra and Howard Bender, the Maryland-bred campaigned for the Benders and their longtime trainer Larry Murray until the end of the 2015 season. For Morris and Pathfinder, he won one race from 10 starts on the flat and over jumps in 2016.

Longing To Travel completed 2 1/4 miles in 4:22 1/5, the fastest time of the day.

• Why not steeplechasing?

Fort Collins made nine winless starts on the flat last year, completing an 11-race losing streak, dating back to a Pennsylvania-bred allowance at Presque Isle Downs in 2015.

Enjoying a four-month break and switching to hurdles, the 7-year-old son of Not For Love returned to the winner’s circle in his hurdle debut for KMSN Stable, Jonathan Sheppard and Gerard Galligan. Fort Collins sat in fourth before rallying to score by a half-length over longtime leader Street Passage. Artie’s Flight finished third.

• With former trainer/jockey Toby Edwards as race director and Bruno Marketing as the event team, the Steeplechase at Charleston completed its first day in another rebirth. Held at The Plantation at Stono Ferry, the meet hosted four hurdle races and a flat race, with an average field size in the hurdle races reaching a healthy 7.25.

Kate Dalton was impressed.

“Toby has done a great job,” Dalton said. “The ground was better than it’s been, the barn area was set up better. It was good day.”